Electricity is a buzzword these days. Everyone wants to use electricity to do everything, from powering their cars to heating their homes to toasting a bagel.
Electricity may be trending as a power source, but most people don’t know where their electricity comes from and how it’s created. They might ask questions like “how is propane made” or “where does gasoline come from,” but when they switch on the lights, they don’t give it a second thought.
If you’ve ever wondered what fuels are used to create electricity (and how they impact the environment), you’ve come to the right place. Let’s break down where electricity comes from and how sustainable those fuel sources are to use.
How Is Electricity Made?
Electricity comes from a variety of different sources. The vast majority of American electricity comes from three places: natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy.
Of those three, natural gas — like the quality propane Paraco Gas provides to its clients on a regular basis — came in highest, providing 38.4% of the entire electric supply. Coal and nuclear power provided 21.9% and 18.9%, respectively.
The EIA adds that 20% of the electricity supply in 2021 was generated by renewable sources, as well. This includes solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass options. The final 0.8% of electricity came from petroleum liquids, coke, and other gases.
The U.S. Department of Energy details the three ways these fuels create electricity. In most cases, the fuel produces steam which turns turbine generators, turning mechanical energy into electrical energy. Wind and water are different because the fuels themselves directly turn the blades. Solar power skips turbines entirely, converting sunlight into electricity through semiconductors.
Each one is different, but they all give you the same result: an abundance of electricity.
Sustainability Questions With Electricity
When you use electricity, it appears to be as stable as all get out. Flip a switch. Turn on an electric car. Pop on a space heater. They burn clean and don’t produce any emissions. Sounds easy, right? Not exactly.
Just because your car isn’t creating a cloud of smoke or your house doesn’t have a chimney spouting black debris into the air doesn’t mean it has zero environmental impact.
The way electricity is made can massively influence the kind of impact that it has on the environment. The EPA points out that nearly every form of electricity comes at a cost. But the size of that cost changes depending on each situation. For example, water is often used to create steam. Solid waste production and polluting water are also concerns.
The biggest issues, not surprisingly, come from burning fuel and the emissions that the activity releases. Of these, coal is the biggest culprit. One study found that coal power plants in the U.S. create 2.5 times as many emissions as generating electricity with liquefied natural gas.
Other options, like nuclear and renewable energy sources, have the smallest impact. Still, they are limited in the overall amount of electricity that they can deliver (less than 40% between the two).
Electricity has been a mainstay of modern life for the past century and more. Nevertheless, the industry is in flux at the moment as it grapples with sustainability and growing demand. Natural gas, like propane, remains a helpful intermediary that avoids the need for excessive coal consumption while maintaining the supply as renewable energy sources become more important each year.